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June 16, 2013

Warner Theater Project: That’s not all, folks

NEW CASTLE — Through the magic of the movies, visitors to the Warner Film Center may soon be transported through time and space.

“Our plan is to take visitors from modern times back to 1907 — the year the Warner brothers opened their first theater in New Castle,” explained John L. “Jack” Oberleitner, a trustee of the Warner Film Center and in charge of development of the planned Warner Movie Palace at Cascade Center at the Riverplex.

“We want visitors to experience the sights, sounds and music of 1907.”

The organization is leasing 3,000 square feet in the building, at South Mill and East Washington streets, from owners Riverplex Partners Inc. A 20-year lease was signed for the space this week.

Oberleitner and Jerry Kern, Warner Film Center president, anticipate opening Phase I of the project on Feb. 2 — the anniversary of the date they believe the Warners opened their first permanent theater in 1907.

Phase I will cost $115,000 to $250,000. Phase II, still in the planning stages, could include interactive exhibits and be more expensive to produce.

This week, the two men said they anticipate opening three theaters on the ground floor of the complex.

“The Warners operated two theaters at the site, one at 11 S. Mill St. one at 15 S. Mill St.,” Oberleitner explained.

At the Nickelodeon, patrons paid five cents admission and sat on hard, wooden chairs in bare-bone surroundings. These would be the conditions found in a storefront operation where ordinary working people would go to watch a movie, they said. Next to it was the “gentry side” theater with carpeting, plush seats and a chandelier. It cost a quarter to get in — quite an investment considering that in 1907, the average wage-earner made about $6 per week. Both theaters showed the same movie.

That film — the 12-minute, 1903 silent movie western “The Great Train Robbery” — will be shown at the theaters.

Oberleitner said visitors may purchase old-fashioned theater tickets, visit either theater and a third venue. That one will show documentaries of life in New Castle circa 1907, the history of movies and the history of the Warner brothers — sons of immigrants who evolved to The Warner Bros., American movie icons.

They also will offer a souvenir shop, murals that local artist Ken Cole has been commissioned to paint and old-time movie memorabilia. This will include a mannequin projectionist “operating” a kinetoscope, similar to the projector the organization believes the Warners used.

He will have an articulated arm to turn the crank to feed the film through and whistle “Yankee Doodle.”

Oberleitner explained that cameramen shooting the movie whistled that tune when filming and projectionists whistled the same tune while showing the film to keep a consistent speed. Musicians playing piano, organ or violin accompaniment to the films covered the sound of the whistling.

Oberleitner added that other members of the Warner family were involved with their New Castle theaters. One Warner sister sold tickets at the box office, another played the family’s organ, transported from Youngstown, in the posh theater. A cousin played a violin in the nickelodeon.

“Sometimes Jack Warner, a younger brother, was sent to empty the theater by singing an off-key version of “O Sole Mio,” Oberleitner said.

Early films came on 10-inch reels and were comparable to home movies. Each took 12 to 13 minutes to play and a movie-goer could expect two to three acts. “They were called that because the lights had to come up between films so the reels could be changed,” Oberleitner explained.

A full musical score was written for each film produced and in some places, Oberleitner said, theaters offered full orchestra accompaniment. New Castle did not.

However, New Castle — bustling with tin mills and other industries and growing in population — “was rich in theaters, at one time having 12 within a few blocks of each other,” Oberleitner said.

“These were the days before television,” he said. “People could sit at home with their Victrolas or go out and be part of the town.”

And New Castle was a boom town from the turn of the century through World War II.

“They expected New Castle to be a twin city to Pittsburgh, to be bigger than Youngstown,” he said. “There were a lot of people. They needed a lot of entertainment. Movies were educational and exciting.”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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